James Franco’s The Disaster Artist (2017) is one of the great missed-opportunities in cinematic history. It attempts to encapsulate the bizarre drama behind the making of The Room (2003), the most beloved bad movie in history. It’s the only bad movie I ever watched out of that hipster proclivity for ironic consumption of poor quality media that I was not let down by. It’s a fun watch, and doesn’t devolve into boring nonsense as many other cult bad movies do (see Battlefield Earth). Instead, Tommy Wiseau’s unexpected masterpiece keeps finding new ways to be terrible, almost scene-by-scene. I can’t recommend it enough. All audiences – film snobs and civilians alike – can find charms in its eagerness, its sincere aspirations for greatness, and its utter failure. That’s what makes it great. Wiseau shot for the stars, and plunged headfirst into the sand.
Franco’s film tries to capture that bizarre energy, and explore the even stranger story of how the film was made – particularly focusing on the relationship between Greg Sestero (author of the book which inspired the film) and Wiseau, the cryptic savant behind the whole thing. And Franco, to his credit, is the perfect person to play Wiseau. He is no stranger to eccentricity, and has himself been guilty of artistic delusions of grandeur. Franco is poking fun at himself almost as much as he is at Tommy. The movie is not a mean-spirited jab at Wiseau. It is made by people who love The Room and want to pay homage to it. But the film can only inspire in me one thought: man, I’d really rather just go watch the original.
The effort is ultimately fruitless. The Disaster Artist is a pale recreation, a “greatest hits” both of dramatic reenactments from The Room and scenes from Sestero’s book. The narrative arc constructed for Wiseau is that he sought Hollywood success, and found success of a different type among cult audiences. But imagine Wiseau’s emotions upon finding out the movie he had almost single-handedly created, from the ground-up, with his own money, is the laughing stock of an entire industry. The Disaster Artist fails to show us the complex emotions that come with living as a parody of yourself, with being ridiculed and praised simultaneously. Try watching Wiseau’s recent YouTube output – it’s embarrassing. What’s sadder than a man unwittingly making a complete mockery of himself on film? A man knowingly doing it, playing the part of a delusional wacko to appease the fans. He can never live down The Room, nor rise above it. Neil Breen never experienced the fame of Tommy Wiseau, luckily. He can continue to turn out his own brand of bizarre, misguided masterpieces, and doesn’t have an entire army of fans cheering him on. He either doesn’t know he’s a joke, or is very good at faking it. Wiseau has to play the perpetual jester. That’s the real tragedy. And The Disaster Artist does nothing to ameliorate that.
A good movie might have legitimized Wiseau, and freed him from the grip of ironic internet celebrity. The Room was made with so much passion, so much dead-serious willpower, that it deserves a legitimately great artistic reappraisal. But Franco, producer Seth Rogen and company are not the team to do it. The direction is hands-off and lazy, with poorly thought-out handheld camerawork. Not much thought went into execution of The Disaster Artist – the filmmakers were so excited to have Franco mimic the iconic “oh hai Mark” that they forgot to tell a great story. They forgot the basic elements of a great story. They forgot to hire actors capable of telling a great story (James’ brother Dave as Sestero is the laziest casting of all time). I appreciate that the Franco brothers and Seth Rogen wanted to hang out on set and shoot scenes from one of their favorite movies. Over the end credits, we see side-by-side comparisons of scenes from the original movie and scenes shot by Franco, showing off the production team’s accuracy. But in the end… what’s the point? Who cares? We’ve all seen The Room and know what it looks like. It doesn’t take great skill to reshoot a film that’s already in the can. What takes effort is bringing a crazy, unbelievable true story to life. And Franco isn’t interested in that. I wish he had been. I wanted to see Tommy Wiseau as a real person, as someone I can sympathize with. But for now, he’ll exist only as the meme he already is – and that’s a damn shame.